Digital media activism and Nigeria's public sphere.

Author:Oladepo, Tomi
Position:Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism


In 2013, the United Nations embarked on a crowdsourcing exercise to develop the next generation of anti-poverty goals. They employed digital media and mobile phone technologies to create an inclusive communication environment for people all over the world to have a say in shaping the new global development agenda. The web platforms for this global conversation were "The World We Want 2015" website, Short Message Service (SMS), and Interactive Voice Response (IVR). In Uganda, through a free SMS-based citizen reporting system, the UN was able to aggregate the views of over seventeen thousand young people on what the development priorities in their respective communities should be (Kjovern, 2013). This global conversation, enabled by digital media technologies, has led the United Nations to this conclusion: "people want to be a part of delivering this new agenda, and to hold governments and businesses accountable for their promises and commitments" UNDP, 2015).

The fast adoption of digital media in Africa (largely, it must be said, mobile phone telephony) delivers for the UN a ready-made platform for the advancement of the Post-2015 agenda. Where people seek to hold their governments accountable for their promises and commitments, digital media has so far been instrumental in meeting these needs (or appearing to meet them) through diverse group initiatives and individual innovative projects. In this article, I explore the idea of digital media activism in Africa (specifically, Nigeria) using three case studies, where through active digital media participation, interaction, and a display of democratic culture, the government is being held to account by a burgeoning public sphere that requests it 'legitimates' itself before the people. The aim of this paper is to examine the idea of social change via digital media in Nigeria, Africa, from the communication platforms employed, to the local-centric techniques and strategies discharged in meeting civic activism goals.

Digital media and public sphere theory

The 'public sphere' is a strong theoretical concept, famously set out by German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas (1962), and subject to revision and critique ever since. It essentially refers to the realm of interaction and communication where citizens deliberate and articulate their views on matters regarding political decision making or considered to be in "public" interest. How this happens, who populates, controls or dominates this 'sphere' (or indeed whether a unified or single or dominant sphere exists at all) is a matter of constant scholarly debate. The issues of concern in our context are not so much the classical matters that are associated with the relationship between the state and civil society, law, order, security, or internal issues regarding procedures in the administration the country. They concern the way that digital media technologies have very rapidly and effectively opened a space we can credibly refer to as a 'digital public sphere'.

Moreover, one of the features of this new public sphere is activism--its dynamism, lack of established protocols, fluidity, routine anonymity, rapid response mechanisms and mass mobilisation impacts, have generated unique opportunities. Of course, scholarly debate remains on the definition of 'activist' and, as Bobel (2007) argues, there is a lacunae between "doing activism" and "being activist". Many actors within new social movements reject the label "social activist", as indeed older concepts of citizenship have become outmoded given the social complexity and diversity of contemporary society. However, as contemporary forms of social protests continue to draw on more easily accessible new media technologies in the communication and amplification of "movement messages/agenda", we can expect a clear-cut identification of the social activist, as much as the occasion of their activism.

Habermas' original perceptions of the historical public sphere was arguably more abstract than empirical, and grounded on historical notions of collective representation as political communication, rather than actual institutions, organisations or related administration. Similarly, the manner of public sphere that is emerging on digital media platforms, can only be defined as a 'space' of representation that is formed through acts of dynamic communication. It is structurally expansive, and constituted by multiple and hybrid flows of communicative interaction (cf. Castles, 2008). In other words, it features social forces that do not make for the standard processes of institutionalisation. Although, of course, sociophysical institutional spaces such as coffee houses and salons were, for Habermas, inextricably bound up with the historical evolution of the public sphere in Europe, (and the machine of the printing press played a crucial role is facilitating the articulation, amplification and dissemination of deliberations that took place in this public realm), we cannot find a parallel, stable, mechanical infrastructure or apparatus for the digital public sphere. We cannot, as the media infrastructures and 'machines' (or today, 'devices') are multi-purpose, improvised, globally mobile, intangible, of dispersed ownership and administrative control, only partially subject to political jurisdictions, and so on. I will not labour this argument here, as the purposes of this paper lie elsewhere.

The public sphere has, in part, migrated to a multiplicity of platforms, and as Castells points out as a general principle, the contemporary public sphere involves avenues removed from any physical location; it is increasingly global both in its frame of references and values (2008: 79-80). The rise of radio and television, old media, impacted the public sphere, but has now been subject to what Bolter and Grusin (1999) term 'remediation'. This remediation does not simply make sense of the introduction of new media technologies and devices, but also the impact their arrival has on existing media technologies. As they point out, new media, the Internet and the diverse nature of digital media, are not exclusive from 'old' media, but rather, they embody and articulate the function of these old media, while extending that function into regions of society and culture that old media was once absent, or socially had not yet emerged.

The interpenetration of digital media into 'everyday life' makes older scholarly proclamations on the democratising effect of national television, or the reversal of the democratising effect of television by international media corporations and business elites, and the dissolution of the public sphere, all seem quaint. The brave new world of digital media has opened up a 'local-global' synergy, where personal ejaculations can now find a global audience in a way that directly pertains to the formation of social movements (cf. the work of Douglas Kellner). The expansion of the idea of the public sphere to embrace digital media technologies attempts to take this into account. Through digital media, new forms of public communication (where 'forms' also entail scale, reach and impact) are emerging, where remediation ensures that this is not some niche area or social trend that might disappear as fast as it appeared. Even 'traditional' national newspapers now use internet platforms (websites, blogs, social network sites) to ensure their very survival; the very future of old media (of media at all) rests with the new digital media.

Understanding Nigeria's political system

According to the Federal Constitution, Nigeria functions as a democracy. And yet this ideal as is found in many nations, and often only partially manifest in practice. That Nigeria operates as a democracy presupposes the adherence to basic tenets and conditions of democracy that are relatively unanimous in scholarly discourse. They are the tenets of representation, participation, and popular inclusivity, which yield fully informed citizens, who are enabled to contribute to decision-making by the State, regarding their social, cultural, and economic life. These tenets are thus grounded in communication media, alternative spaces for interaction, and the role of the state in ascribing legitimacy to the citizen. Democracy comes with the freedom to express oneself, human participation and rights are guaranteed, and the rule of law is not subverted on any account.

Nigeria as a political entity was created in 1914, when the British colonialists merged the Northern and Southern protectorates. Prior to this development, the regions that make up Nigeria were autonomous in their ruling of one another (Falola & Heaton, 2008: 7). Hence, when Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the regional arrangement of the Eastern, Western, and Northern region prevailed, albeit that they functioned under one government. Subsequently post-independence, there were coups, a civil war, and the consolidation of a military system of government for most of the 1980s and 1990s. Democracy became reinstated in the country in 1999, when the military finally handed over power to the civilians. To date, there has been no return to the oppressive military system of government. This is the socio-political history that has shaped the character of Nigeria's current political climate.

In practice, Larry Diamond (2013), suggests that Nigeria's political system is best described as an "hybrid" form of democracy, given how its elections are sometimes fraught by corruption. And yet, the State identified with democratic ideals and there is a certain measure of freedom available to civil society.

There remains, as Diamond points out, a certain level of civil pluralism which in turn allows for some degree of representativeness. In this paper, I use the term 'democracy' in relation to Nigeria as a form of political 'culture', as distinct from the firmly established models and practices of government one finds in Europe, for...

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